Unit Overview

In this unit, we will be introduced to how philosophers think about morality in contrast to non-philosophical conceptions of morality like moral relativism, subjectivism, and divine command theories of morality. 

From a psychological point of view, An individual’s moral beliefs, and their actions that we would considered as moral or immoral, are profoundly shaped by evolution and genetics, and by various aspects of an individual’s experience, like the personality traits of their parents, the culture they grew up in, the religion they grew up in, the time and place they grew up, their peer group, what media they are exposed to and so on and so forth. However, for philosophers, at least those who believe the concepts of right and wrong have a meaning, the morality of an action is not determined by any of those factors. Those facts causally explain an individual’s moral beliefs and actions but do not morally justify them. For philosophers, an action is justified when we can provide good reasons why we ought to perform such an action.

Philosophy is about providing reasons for one’s beliefs, and moral philosophy is about providing reasons for one’s moral beliefs.

To better understand this concept we will consider the alternate views of moral subjectivism, moral relativism and divine command theory.


Culture, Religion, and Morality

About 10,000 or so years ago human morality enters a new phase of development. Our moral emotions carried us quite far in our journey but it was culture that really set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. It was around this time that humans developed agriculture which enabled the development of large cities and more complex social and cultural structures. And over this period religion co-evolved with human culture. It is tempting to think of moral rules as simply the rules that a particular group of people, based on their culture or religion, follow. This view makes sense when you think about the differences between cultures and religions in terms of their moral beliefs and practices.

A simple argument along these lines is what James Rachels calls the cultural differences argument. The argument is as follows:

  1. Different cultures have different moral values.
  2. So, There are no objective moral values.

However, this argument is not valid. The first premise is true but the conclusion of the argument does not follow from the first premise. There is no logical connection between the premise and the conclusion. You can see the problem with this argument when thinking about a similar argument:

  1. Different cultures have different beliefs about the origin of life on Earth.
  2. So, there is no objective fact about the origin of life on Earth.

The above argument is clearly ridiculous, but the first is just as bad. We can describe various cultures and different religious beliefs about morality but those descriptions do not provide us with any information about what we ought to do or believe about moral issues.

In many cultures throughout history slavery has been practiced, but talking about slavery from a cultural perspective doesn’t allow us to say what we need to say about slavery, that it is horribly wrong and should never be practiced. The same goes for any number of issues. We can describe various culture’s moral beliefs and practices but there have been thousands of cultures and sub-cultures throughout history, all with somewhat different beliefs. Thinking about morality as simply the rules of a certain culture does not allow us to determine which culture’s beliefs are true and false. Are the cultures that claim slavery is okay correct or are the cultures that claim it is wrong correct? Some cultures deny women the rights they currently have. Are these cultures correct? How can we tell?

The same line of reasoning applies to religious morality as well. There are numerous religions all with different rules, so religion doesn’t really provide moral guidance. We can construct a religious differences argument, similar to Rachels’ cultural differences argument:

  1. Different religions have different moral values.
  2. So, There are no objective moral values.

Some people identify with and believe a certain religion is true but when doing moral philosophy we can’t do that. Moral philosophy is independent of religious beliefs and based simply what we have the best reasons to believe to be true. One could argue that a certain religion is true and therefore one should believe the moral teachings of that religion. That would, however, take us into the territory of philosophy religion which is beyond the scope of this course, but in short, no one has ever convincingly argued for the claim that God exists, much less that any particular religion is true.

Therefore, we are left with trying to provide reasons, justifications, or arguments for our moral beliefs directly. If you believe slavery, murder, torture, abortion, or anything else is morally wrong you should be able to provide convincing reasons as to why those actions are wrong.

Philosophy is the process of trying to figure out which actions are right and wrong. In philosophy we use reasons to argue why some actions right and some are wrong. And it is only in philosophy that we can do this. Studying human evolution, human psychology, human history and culture can tell us about how humans have acted in the past and why they act the way they do. However, only philosophy can tell us how humans ought to act.

And that is what this course is about, trying to figure out how humans ought to act, which actions are right and which are wrong.

Philosophers refer to this distinction between how or why people act and how they should act as the “is-ought” gap, or the “fact-value distinction.” The science or history of morality is this “is” or “fact” side of the distinction. For example, it is the case that because of our tribal nature humans are often racist in their thought and behavior. But in philosophy we say that that humans “ought” to act in certain ways. For example, humans ought not to be racist. And normative ethics is the area of philosophy in which we seek to determine what the fundamental principle of how we ought to act is.

Normative Ethics

Normative ethics is the discipline of ethics in which we seek to find some principle or set of principles that can be used to determine what actions are right and what actions are wrong. Often philosophers have sought one ultimate or fundamental principle of ethics that clearly defines which actions are right and wrong. Over two thousand years ago, Plato in his dialog The Euthyphro has Socrates seeking an answer to this very question.

In the dialog Socrates has been summoned to court and is being accused by Meletus of corrupting the youth and “not believing in the gods” and on his way to the court Socrates runs into Euthyphro. Socrates and Euthyphro begin making small talk and Socrates learns that Euthyphro is on his way to court to charge his own father with murdering a slave. Socrates thinks to himself that Euthyphro must really know what makes an action wrong if he is so sure of himself that he is willing to accuse his father of murder for accidentally killing a slave who was a criminal. To our modern ears this might not sound that shocking but for Plato’s audience, it would have seemed quite preposterous to accuse one’s father of murder for killing a slave, as slaves did have legal rights and a very important duty is to respect one’s father. And on top of that the slave had acted criminally, and the killing was accidental. So, Socrates, claiming total ignorance on the subject, begins to inquire from Euthyphro about the nature of right and wrong and what makes an action right or wrong. Euthyphro begins by listing various actions that are right and various actions that are wrong to give an answer to Socrates by various examples. But this sort of answer is not the answer that Socrates is looking for. Socrates wants to know why the actions that are right are right and why the actions are wrong are wrong. We may all agree that murder is wrong but that doesn’t tell us why murder is wrong. Socrates, being the philosopher that he is, wants to know a principle by which we could actually determine which actions are right and wrong. Socrates was attempting to engage Euthyphro in philosophical discussion of what is now called normative ethics.

What does “normative” mean? It may help you to remember this if you think about the more commonly used word “norm” or “social norm.” A social norm is how one ought to behave socially and similarly, an ethical norm is how one ought to behave ethically. In philosophy, normative theories are often contrasted with descriptive theories. Descriptive theories are theories that describe something about the world as it is. Scientific theories are descriptive. Scientific theories describe how something behaves, whether atoms or humans. This is another way of talking abou the “is” part of the the is-ought gap. Normative theories are theories about how we ought to behave. A descriptive theory of human nature might tell us that we are not very altruistic beyond a limited group of friends and family however a moral theory might tell us that we ought to be altruistic beyond a limited group of friends and family.

Another way this distinction between normative and descriptive theories is discussed as is the fact-value distinction.  When doing ethics there are certain facts that we work with, facts about intentions and motivations and facts about happiness or suffering caused by actions. And in ordinary thinking we often times move from an action causing some harm or suffering to that action be morally wrong. However, one cannot determine whether an action is right or wrong simply based on scientific or empirical facts. There must also be a normative principle involved at some stage of the argument. Generally we consider murder to be wrong, however, the following argument is a non-sequitur:

  1. Murder causes needless suffering.
  2. So, murder is wrong.

To get the conclusion to follow we need an additional premise that states that an action being described in the first premise violates some normative ethical principle. Such an argument would look like this:

  1. Murder causes needless suffering. (Empirical fact)
  2. It wrong to cause needless suffering. (Normative Principle)
  3. So, murder is wrong. (Specific Conclusion)

This divide between facts and moral judgments was first noted by David Hume and is also often times referred to as “the is-ought gap.” Hume noted that often times people move from one fact to another, is statements, and then suddenly make an entirely different kind of statement, an ought statement. Nothing ethical follows from a fact. Or said another way, to get an “ought” in the conclusion of your argument you need an “ought” in the premises of the argument (See the above examples for illustrations of this.) To make an ethical argument one needs both to describe the facts (empirical) and then invoke some principle that states that the facts are morally problematic (normative).

We discussed the evolution of morality and various emotions and instincts possessed by animals of various species, including humans. However, science can only provide us with descriptions of morality, or descriptive claims about morality i.e. is-statements. Science provides us with descriptions of human and animal behavior, but not how humans ought to behave. Science provides us with descriptions, but not prescriptions. For that, we must turn to philosophy. Similarly, we can look at various cultures and religions and their moral beliefs and we can provide descriptions of those beliefs, but there is no reason to assume any one culture or religion provides us with prescriptions. No religion or culture tells us how we ought to behave, independent of good reasons. If you believe the moral practices of your culture or religion are the right ones you should be able to provide reasons as to why they are the right beliefs.

There are a number of normative ethical traditions and competing normative ethical theories. Some of more common are virtue ethics, Kantian ethics, social contract theories (contractarianism and contractualism), Utilitarianism, care ethics, and feminist Ethics. In this course we will limit our attention to three types of normative ethical theories: consequentialismcontractarianism, and contractualism.

Our discussion of these theories will be far from exhaustive. We will not cover all the various objections to the theories or all the variations of each type of theory, but it will be enough for you to be able to draw upon them when thinking about the issues in various questions in applied ethics that we will cover, as well as in your everyday life. In this course we will move from discussion of our three normative ethical theories to issues in applied ethics and will then have an opportunity to go back, reassess, and reconsider the normative ethical theories we covered. This process is what John Rawls called reflective equilibrium, whereby we bring our considered judgments about certain issues to bear on ethical theory and vice versa until we feel that our ethical theory most closely captures our considered judgments on all the possible issues.

The way this works is that we have an approximate idea of our intuitions on a range of issues (murder, rape, torture, civil liberties, distributive justice, abortion, animal rights, etc.) and we try to come up with a principle that matches with our intuitions. And then we attempt to specify our theory as precisely as possible. Then we set out to test our theory by coming up with various examples, ideally examples that are likely to falsify the theory. This process is similar to the way scientific theories are tested in that the scientist looks for evidence that will either falsify the theory or confirm it to a greater degree. The ethicist, rather than conducting experiments in a lab, conducts thought experiments by considering the ethical implications of various actions. A famous thought experiment is the trolley problem. It goes like this:

You see a trolley that is out of control and is about to run over and kill five people. You have the option to pull a switch and move the trolley onto another track where there is only one person who will be killed.

Most people think we have a moral obligation to pull the switch, however it is not as easy to explain why exactly that is. Through a process of trial and error and considering and reconsidering our views of what makes actions right and wrong we can hopefully come up with well thought out answers to the various moral questions we are interested in.

The readings in this unit provide specific arguments against the conceptions of ethics contained in cultural relativism, subjectivism, and divine command theory. The notes here provide an introduction to those topics but the readings should help you understand them better. All three of those ideas have an intuitive appeal but hopefully you will be able to see that we critically examined all three fail to serve as the basis for rational moral theory, as all three ground morality in something other than reason. Only reason can provide an objective foundation for moral thinking. Reason is objective in that it is something we can all accept as having validity. I may not accept your culture or religion or opinion as authoritative but we all accept reason as authoritative. We can always make an appeal to reason, and while we may not always agree on what is rational, if we attempt to appeal to reason there is some hope of eventually coming to a common understanding on these important issues. 

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